Winter Truck Camping: A Cold Weather Camping Guide
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If you’re wanting to brave that 4th season and do some winter car or truck camping, or maybe you just want to camp at elevation where cold weather camping is the only option - you’ve come to the right place. In this post we’ll cover the five best ways to stay warm while truck camping in winter weather.
First: Don’t Use Propane Heaters
Let’s just get this out of the way - we get asked about this A LOT, and unless you’re planning on doing long-term cold weather camping, propane heaters are not worth the trouble or risk in a truck shell camper.
It’s very difficult to get the manufacturer’s recommended safety clearances when truck bed camping
Propane creates moisture as it’s burned, which exacerbates the already troublesome condensation issues of cold weather camping
The ceramic propane heaters we experimented with for winter truck camping were prone to a number of issues:
The low-oxygen shut-off and tip-over safety shut-off systems (though we very much appreciated these necessary features) seemed to be finicky and would result in frequent and sporadic shut-offs
They were also nearly impossible to relight once the low-ox system was tripped
Once lit, the heat output was difficult to regulate to an appropriate comfort level because of the limited adjustment settings
At the end of the day, these are just not designed for the confined space of a truck shell camper or for car camping
With that said, if you have a larger space like a camper van, skoolie, or even a wedge camper, then a ceramic propane heater may be worth a look. We do plan to integrate a Camco Olympian Wave 3* propane heater when we get our GFC wedge camper next year.
Second: Layer Up!
The best way to enjoy cold weather camping is to wear high-quality cold weather clothing, and layer appropriately. (You can check out the clothing section of our gear page if you’re interested in more specific clothing recommendations).
Base layer (should be high-quality merino wool):
Gloves (if necessary)
Wool or fleece-synthetic sweater or hoodie
Down-fill (or high quality synthetic) Insulated Coat
Gore-tex Rain Jacket
By layering in this way you can simply add/remove layers to adjust comfort level throughout the day.
And then wear your layers to bed, removing layers as you settle in to find the perfect comfort level. This, combined with the right sleeping bag, will drastically improve your cold weather camping experience. Which brings us to our third tip.
Third: Invest in a high-quality sleeping bag and truck camping mattress
A quality sleeping bag and camping mattress is the easiest way to improve your overall truck camping experience, especially when braving winter trips or higher elevation adventures. Plus, the great thing about truck camping is, unlike backpacking, you have significantly more room to work with and weight is nowhere near as critical of an issue.
This means that your overall cost will be less, because the two biggest factors that impact the price of sleeping bags and camping mattresses/pads are: weight (lighter = more expensive) and volume (more compact = more expensive).
What to look for in a sleeping bag:
For adults, a 15℉ rated bag will generally provide the most versatility, and when combined with layering can be comfortable in temps down to 0℉
For children in their own separate sleeping bag, it is generally recommended that they use a bag rated 15℉ lower than whatever adults are using in a given climate. So if you wake up and know you are warm, you can rest assured (literally) that your kiddo is comfortable too. So a 0℉ bag is what we’d recommend for cold weather camping - nevertheless, you should actively monitor your child's comfort level when cold weather camping to ensure they're neither too hot nor too cold.
Insulation / Fill
We recommend only using high-quality synthetic sleeping bags when truck camping in cold weather because 1) synthetic bags are less expensive and 2) they will not lose their insulating ability when wet - unlike down-fill insulated bags. This is important because of the condensation issues that can occur when truck shell camping in cold weather (more on this below).
Zipper - you’ll want two-way zippers that can be opened from both inside or outside of the sleeping bag - this will allow you to more easily adjust the bag’s ventilation and get settled in at night.
Sleeping pad holder - this is effectively a sleeve on the bottom side of the sleeping bag that you can slide a sleeping pad or mattress into. This is an especially nice feature if you’re considering using an inflatable camping pad or mattress because it will help prevent you and your sleeping bag from sliding off in the middle of the night - which is no bueno.
Speaking of truck camping mattresses and sleeping pads, this is another very important part of enjoying cold weather truck camping (and camping in general). So much so that we have an entire post dedicated to helping you select the right one.
However, the take-away from that post as it pertains to cold weather camping is that we recommend using a high-density memory foam truck camping mattress instead of an inflatable air mattress, because it will retain your body heat far better.
If you’re curious about the 4-season camping sleep system we currently use and recommend - here it is:
Sleeping Bag: Big Agnes Dream Island 15* (2-person bag)
Fourth: Use body heat & find a cold weather camping companion
The human body generates between 250-400 BTUs of heat on average. So if you want a warmer trip while cold weather camping, be sure to:
Eat a hearty meal before hitting the hay to kick your metabolism into gear and maximize your body heat - then stash a high-calorie midnight snack (granola/protein bar/fig newtons/snickers) nearby in case you burn through those calories and wake up cold.
Bring someone along (preferably someone you’d be comfortable cuddling with ;) to share their heat!
We find that while cold weather camping in the truck shell our combined body heat makes the interior 10 to 20℉ warmer than the outside air temperature.
Fifth: Don’t let condensation win, ventilate!
But the more bodies, the more breathing, and the more breathing, the more condensation - especially if you’re truck camping in winter. And if everything is soaked when you get out of bed you’re not going to be...well... a happy camper.
So, though it may seem counter intuitive, you need to crack a window and ventilate your truck camper to limit condensation build up. We use our MaxxFan Deluxe vent fan* on its lowest exhaust setting to help circulate air into and out of the camper shell and this works great for mitigating condensation build up when cold weather camping! However, if you’re not up to installing a vent fan in your truck camper, you can crack two windows to allow cross-ventilation.
Having a felt lined truck shell will also help to prevent any condensation build up that does occur from dripping down from the ceiling. If your camper shell doesn’t have a felt or carpeted liner you can install one yourself like we did - just stay tuned for our how-to post!
We hope these five cold weather camping tips help you extend your truck camping adventures into all 4 seasons and enjoy truck camping in winter with a little more comfort!
If you have any cold weather camping tips or tricks, we’d love to hear them - just drop a comment below! And please SUBSCRIBE for more truck camping and overland travel content!
As always, thanks for reading!
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